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May 16, 2006

An interview with Alejandro Escovedo

Alejandro Escovedo’s career has gone from California punk to the birthing of alt-country to much-lauded eclectic singer-songwriter records, tours, and even theater collaborations. But his personal journey took harrowing turns in recent years, with the loss of his father and a long and difficult struggle to survive Hepatitis C. For a year after his diagnosis in 2003, he couldn’t pick up a guitar. Musician friends and fans (including Los Lonely Boys, along with Steve Earle and many others) released an album of cover versions of Escovedo songs (Por Vida) to help with medical expenses. Recently, Escovedo’s newest music has come out in The Boxing Mirror, produced by Velvet Underground legend John Cale. This album is unafraid to draw power from extremes. The lyrics can be filled with realistic observations or be built on impressionistic metaphors (sometimes supplied by Escovedo’s wife, poet Kim Christoff). The arrangements can have gentle Tejano acoustic guitar, a sweetly saddened cello, cathartic electric guitar feedback, quick synthesizer squiggles that act like lightning rods, or the whole ensemble going for simple ripsaw riffage. The singing often hangs back the tiniest bit, but with reassuring naturalism.  A few days before the NON-COMMvention gathering of radio music programmers (an annual event at which Cale was a surprise guest in 2004) brought Escovedo in for one of the “Listener Appreciation Concerts,” LEO spoke with him by phone.LEO: What kind of band will you be bringing into Louisville?AE: Cello, violin, guitar…I play guitar…bass, drums and keyboards. Sometimes we go out for acoustic shows: two cellos, violin, two acoustic guitars. We just finished doing that in Europe. End of the month, we’ll be going out to do that again, in England, Scotland…LEO: How many of the rockers from the new record do you do with acoustic instrumentation like that?AE: All of ‘em.LEO: Have you been playing the songs from the new album live for a while, then? AE: Most of them, for about a year. Not “Dearhead on the Wall.” And “Notes on Air”…LEO: Oh, the one with the recurring lines about the buck and the doe — that poetic image just slams in your head. It’s got impact.AE: That was one of the few we didn’t have ready and started playing live just in the last few months. “Looking for Love” — we didn’t have an arrangement until John Cale came up with one. But these songs…what they have is not so different from what was on the older records.  It includes all the same kinds of music that I’ve done before — but this time it’s all more stylized and focused. And for that I credit John Cale.He wanted to give my sound more weight. He accepted my songs and wanted me to sing them with more confidence than ever — as if I hadn’t been sick at all. And that John Cale, he did so much. With his subtle coaching and coaxing, he mentored me. He managed to get it out of me…and I didn’t think I could, I guess. Man, there were three years there that were bleak.LEO: The song sequence here — “Evita’s Lullaby” has a beauty that’s not too delicate, but it’s tempered and light, and then “Sacramento & Polk” has crunch. Is that kind of dynamics difficult to recreate on the road, going from one club to a different-sounding room the next night?AE: We haven’t had much trouble. Most of the clubs where we’ve played have had very good sound. And we travel with our own sound guy. Ben has been mixing for about a year. He knows all the songs now.LEO: The textures that are on this record: strings, synthesizers — sometimes both. I know you’ve long been adding cello and the like…but something like the ‘80s arrangement of “Take Your Place”: It’s pretty bold with the synth. AE: You know, the Stonesier version of that song is the first version that we recorded. I asked John to deconstruct it and make it into something new. The version that’s in the album sequence…it’s almost Prince-like. I really like it…You don’t always have to make it easy on the audience. LEO: You’ve kept honest to that approach. AE: I’ve always tried to connect to the emotional quality of songs. How we find love, or how we fail to. How we find a way to live. How we look for love in places we shouldn’t. And I want to connect the listener to the emotional experience of what the feeling is that’s being created when that song’s played. When you listen to Another Green World by Brian Eno — I think that’s a good example — I think you can get a perfect idea of how he feels about those songs. LEO: I read in an interview that your road schedule does have to be tempered to accommodate concern for your wellness. Does that make for a very different view of the road?AE: I can’t go for as long. We used to go for months. But now, in the two weeks max that we do, I think we get more work done. We’re not as into the party scene as we were. We’re more focused. And we’re not trying to get away from anything at home, y’know?My manager, Heinz, he makes it run smooth. Better than when I was doing the managing for us...we’d all be in one car, we’d get to town and then we’d find a place to park it and only then I’d finally say, “Well, I guess we’d better call to see about a hotel now.” LEO: You’ve had a good handle on songs about mortality and personal loss for many years — do you see that as something that will be dealt with more, on more playlists, as the baby-boom generation gets through their fifties and beyond? AE: That’s not for sure…but let’s look at Neil Young’s catalog. That last record he had — Prairie Wind — that was reflective in a way that dealt with losses. That makes songwriting very interesting. People’s experiences, and their views, on such things come out individualistic when they’re put into songs. I lost my father a couple of years ago, and it had a profound effect on me. As we get older, we’re facing loss as a greater part of our lives. More of the listeners get to middle age, and beyond, the experience of losing loved ones will open them up to concerns that hadn’t often been on their minds. They’ll face loss as a greater part of their lives — and then it’s not about “the girl down the street.” They’re looking for a perspective on grander concerns, deeper concerns.LEO: Your illness, the tribute album, dealing in mortality with your songs now (though you’ve done that before)…it’s possible that these are doing a lot to now make you as well-known as you’ve ever been. Is the earlier Alejandro Escovedo — the one from the punk group — does he pop up and cop an attitude about the irony of it all? Or does he just toss out a shrug?AE: I never thought about that. When I first picked up a guitar, it was for a movie — a movie about the worst band in the world. But we were into punk, and we got into playing punk. We knew what that was about — our favorite bands, like the Faces, the Velvets — they didn’t sell. The first Velvet Underground album — what did it sell, a couple thousand? But those were that said things that I understood. And that’s how I learned to say things in music.You know, I’ve heard it at times…“you should be more successful,” they’ll say. But if you’re counting money, you’re keeping the wrong perspective. My concerns are pretty modest. If I can still be doing this — making music — it’s a pretty good blessing. I’m feeling blessed.Contact the writer at tlx@aol.com